Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Last Sky Hook

I’m watching my favorite basketball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on TV lope up the court, his long arms dangling on either side of him, his face impassive. Setting up to the left of the basket, he takes a pass and shoots his patented “sky” hook shot: thrusting off his left foot, his body rises above the court, torso twisting right, right arm following in an arc. As his arm reaches the top of its semicircular path, above his seven-foot-two-inch frame, the ball gently rolls off his fingertips – almost more magic trick than athletic feat.
After the game, I go outside and shoot sky hooks at the basket nailed to the roof above the garage. I’m careful to execute each sky hook exactly as Kareem does, even though it’s bordering on the preposterous for a five-foot-something 12-year-old to be attempting a shot designed to maximize the height advantage of a man more than seven feet tall – even if I am tall for my age.
To mimic the sky hook, I record the physical Kareem in my memory and my muscles, but it’s Kareem’s soul that I identify with. He’s like me. In the course of battle he remains composed, tuned inward. His stoic face conceals inner emotion. In interviews, he speaks softly and uncomfortably, but, beneath, thoughts bubble.
Kareem’s non-conformity – his conversion to the Black Muslim faith and name change, abrasive as they may have been to the majority – inspires feelings of kinship in me, a Midwestern Jewish kid.

Kareem had been in the NBA four seasons and had already won one championship when his Milwaukee Bucks faced off against the legendary Boston Celtics in the 1973-74 NBA Finals. My best friend Steve Gurevitch was rooting for the Celtics. His mother was from Boston; his father met her there when he attended Harvard; and Steve, as he liked to remind me whenever the subject of allegiance came up, was born in Boston. Steve seemed to believe he was destined to go to Harvard, as his father had. And, with a similar confidence, he was certain the Celtics – proven winners – would defeat the Bucks.
Both the Celtics and Gurevitches were bound by pride. The very first time I stepped into the Gurevitch home, Steve and his younger sister Karen whisked me into the kitchen to play their four-year-old brother Stuart in chess. The wunderkind beat me handily, which they reported gleefully to their mother. Throughout Stuart’s massacre and its humiliating aftermath, however, Steve and Karen insisted on ignoring one small, pertinent piece of information: I didn’t know how to play chess.
With the House of Gurevitch backing the Celtics, I tried hard to will Kareem and the Bucks to victory. I pressed the Bucks’ case with Tim Donohoo, my friend from up the street and yet another Celtics supporter, as we shot baskets in his driveway.
“How can the Celtics beat the Bucks with Kareem?” I said. “He’s the leading scorer and rebounder in the league.”
“Jabbar’s lazy,” Tim replied. “Watch him. He doesn’t run hard up the court. He’s not like Cowens. Cowens dives after balls. Cowens hustles. He’ll be able to handle Jabbar.”
Desperate to defend Kareem’s honor, I cited a recent Sports Illustrated article on Boston’s star center:
“Cowens holds head-butting contests with people for the fun of it, and he went to Florida State University. He’s a real hick.”
The series turned out to be very close. In Game Six in Boston Kareem gunned down the Celtics in the game’s last seconds with the sky hook. All Milwaukee had to do to win the series was beat Boston on the Bucks’ home court.
But between the sixth and final games, the Celtics’ brain trust of past NBA champions gathered in Boston to figure out how to stop Kareem and the Bucks in decisive Game Seven. They devised a strategy to place a pesky Celtic like Cowens or John Havlicek in front of the Big Man to make it difficult for the Bucks guards to lob the ball into him.
The shrewd strategy worked. I lay listless on the carpet in front of the TV after the Celtics 15-point drubbing of the Bucks, wondering how the Lilliputian Celtics could have taken down giant Kareem. Maybe the Celtics’ victory was preordained. As I suffered for Kareem and myself, I knew Steve was reveling in Boston’s triumph.
The Celtics’ family had taken care of things. Somewhere in my brain Celtic pride and Gurevitch pride became enmeshed.
As the season and the mood changed from basketball to baseball, Steve put on the baseball cleats I had bequeathed him the year before with the dried, cracked mud still cleaving to the soles in between the metal cleats. He wanted them as a hand-me-down to save money. I told him they wouldn’t fit him in a year. He insisted they would, and, as usual, he was right.
That summer the powers-that-be at Kansas City’s Jewish Community Center invited me, a home-run-hitting star at the Center, to play on a team that would, for the first time, represent the JCC in a metro league. Meanwhile Steve, a fellow JCC ball player, had already decided, to my surprise, to break completely with the homeland and try his luck in another, more challenging, city league, unrelated to the Center.
My excitement over being chosen for the elite JCC team soon turned to disappointment when I learned that I wouldn’t be starting. I began each game on the bench with the coach behind the tall fence that enclosed the field, watching the other players like a little boy left behind by his older siblings who’ve gone out on a Saturday night. Later on in the game I would pinch hit, striking out to one of the other team’s superior players, then trot out to left field where I would stand in the grass for a few innings, watching as the fly balls arched high above me, taunting me to turn around and chase after them.
            Frustrated with my trivial role on the team, I told my mother I was going to quit. After she relayed my plans to my father, he called me from work for the first time ever.
“Mother told me you want to quit the team,” he said.
“Well … uh … I hardly get to play,” I answered. “It doesn’t seem to make sense to go to practice when I barely play in the games.”
“Danny, I really don’t want to see you quit,” he insisted. “You’ve never quit anything before … except your trombone lessons.”
I didn’t quit. While I climbed back from the ledge of surrender, Steve grappled with a similar fate. On his team he, too, bore the ignominy of the late-inning, substitute left fielder. Now, at least, I had someone to commiserate with. Then one day at his house he related a startling development.
“I’m pitching, now,” he announced.
“What? How did that happen?” I asked in wonderment. I imagined Steve on the mound, a little guy, cocking his arm, grimacing and firing a fastball, striking out an unsuspecting batter.
“The pitcher got hurt,” he explained. “The coaches asked if anybody could pitch. I said that I could, so they tried me out. They started me on Monday, and I pitched a one-hitter.”
This could only happen to Steve, I thought. Placed in a crappy situation, he steps forward and turns into Sandy Koufax!
Summer ended too soon, as it always did. My mother called me in one still-sunlit evening, the last night before school started – the last night girls really didn’t matter.
The next day I would begin junior high school and enter a thicket of libidinal arousal and social discomfort: cheerleaders with green underpants peaking out from under short skirts; school dances; cloying couples; reports of making out and hickeys. By comparison, the return to Hebrew school was like a reunion with an old friend – a weird old friend.
We had been together four years: Jewish kids at home with each other, bound by the shared resentment of being sent to Hebrew school against our will. Over the years we had paired off into preadolescent couplings: Susie Green and Jill Weiner; Karen Berg and Debbie Morgenstern; Stacey Bernstein and Joan Feld; Jim Aronsky and Jeff Isaacson; Jim Meyers and Mark Silver; and Steve and I. It remained to be seen whether our delicate male-with-male, female-with-female arrangement would be upended by the introduction of new, raging hormones.
            I don’t know if it was due to fact or to my emerging attention to the matter, but some of the Hebrew school girls had become a lot better looking since the year before.
One late Thursday afternoon that fall I walked into the classroom before class had started to find Stacey, Joan and Jennifer Lowenstein in the middle of the room dancing to their own rendition of the then current Doobie Brothers single, “Black Water” – swinging their arms, swaying their hips and tapping their feet to the sassy rhythm.
Jennifer, easily the shortest person in the class, had on her platform “sneakers” – sneaker uppers perched on top of thick, five-inch-high mountains of cream-colored sole. At times like that I wished I had the guts to say something funny, as I would when breaking up the class with a well-timed wise crack.
At approximately 5:15 every Tuesday and Thursday the kids and the teacher would get a short break – time enough for each side to re-arm. At one of those intermissions that fall the guys filed out of the classroom and gathered as usual in front of a window opposite the second-floor classrooms. The last vestiges of sunlight weakly lighting the hallway reminded us that we could be home watching re-runs.
The girls followed us out the room. We watched them enter the hallway, turn right and head for the bathrooms. Customarily we would continue our conversation, but this time one of us decided to ignore tradition. Steve, an elbow propped against the window sill, began talking animatedly to one of the girls stepping into the hallway. The rest of us watched Steve, subdued.
Basketball returned in the late fall. Kareem was injured for part of the season, and the Bucks finished in last place in the Midwest Division. (The following year, acceding to his demands, Milwaukee traded Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles, while the Celtics won another championship.)
I continued perfecting my sky hook in the Jewish Community Center league and friends’ driveways. It came to feel very familiar like a trusty old impression of an entertainer or politician. Sometimes I would try it from far away – from the street, say, at Tim Donohoo’s house. When I made those shots I felt like Houdini.
It’s a funny shot the sky hook. The shooter must overcome the shot’s inherent imbalance – the player off on one foot, holding the ball in the air with one hand like a waiter bringing an entrĂ©e, aiming the ball slightly to the left as the body swings right.
Shooting the sky hook entails, as well, becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: summoning his agility and lean strength, being, for a moment, the hero. But being Kareem starts with the sky hook – his designated weapon, the shot he alone took. And only the wild imagination of a child would consider employing a weapon reserved for so towering a figure. Anyway, that year the gates were closing on fantasy.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Two Thumbs Up for ‘Seder’



Richard: Hi, I’m Richard Elbert, movie critic for the Denver Post.

Ethan: And I’m Ethan Lichter, movie critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. We’re devoting tonight’s show to one of our favorite directors, Japanese auteur Kawasaki Fookiyama, and his new movie, Seder, which took first place at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in the category “Most Difficult to Understand.”

Richard: Fookiyama is known for his obscure, head scratching movies – and proud of it.

Ethan: Seder is no different. What other director would dare to make the shank bone a recurring image or pose as a central question, “Why on this night do we dip twice?”

Richard: But don’t worry. Ethan and I were both Fookiyama majors in film critic’s school. In the next hour we will guide you through Seder, giving you our opinions as well as helping you understand Fookiyama’s latest achievement.

Ethan: Seder tells the story of a modern nuclear family, the Weiners, conducting an ancient Jewish ceremony in the comfort of their own dining room.

Richard: Fookiyama usually leaves the key to the meaning of his movies in the first scene. So let’s watch as the boldly determined Mr. Weiner makes an intriguing announcement to start off the Seder …

Mr. Weiner: This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.

Richard: Looks like Fookiyama’s up to his old tricks. What kind of crazy director would have his main character invite all the hungry and needy in town to dinner at his house – when he’s already safe and sound at his dinner table? If you really want to have guests, put some speakers in your car and drive around before the Seder. Or buy space on a billboard on a major highway: “Seder Tonight at The Weiners, Exit 3½ Miles, Across from Denny’s – DRINKS ON THE HOUSE!!”

Ethan: But the perplexity of Mr. Weiner’s monologue doesn’t end there. Tonight the Weiners celebrate the Redemption from Egypt. So why is Mr. Weiner touting “the bread of affliction” the Jews “ate in the land of Egypt” rather than the bread they took with them when they went out as free people? And while his family is supposed to be experiencing freedom the whole night, why does Mr. Weiner say that “next year” they will be free but “this year” calls them “slaves”?

Richard: That’s kind of a bummer.

Ethan: Richard and I would like to tell you that we figured out this movie. We didn’t. But instead of pretending like we did or turning this into a Godfather retrospective, we decided to invite one of the actors from Seder to explain it. Child star Sadie Weiner, playing herself as the Weiner’s preteen, worked closely with Fookiyama in making the movie, and she’s with us tonight … Sadie, tell us, what is Fookiyama really like?

Sadie: He’s a little … How do they say it in Japan? … Meshuga.

Ethan: But he is brilliant?

Sadie: Oh, yes. He almost beat my little brother in chess.

Richard: First off, that bizarre speech your father makes at the beginning of the movie. He invites the hungry and needy to your Seder, but the only people who hear the invitation is your family.

Sadie: My five-year-old brother, Zach, had some questions for my father before we started the Seder. So in that little speech my father was answering Zach’s questions.

Richard: Why don’t we watch that …?

Mrs. Weiner: Zach, take a tissue and blow. It’s not that complicated. I don’t want to have to look at that the entire Seder.

Zach: Dad, I don’t get it. If G-d took us out of Egypt and made us free, why do I have to go to school? Why are all the Arabs still trying to kill us? Why does it take so long to download New Super Mario Forever 2012? And if we went out of Egypt with the Egyptian’s wealth as G-d promised, why are there still poor Jews?

Mr. Weiner: This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.

Ethan: That kid’s incredible. I don’t care what age he is. He’s getting my vote for best supporting actor … I’m still not sure, though, how your dad answered his question.

Sadie: My father’s telling my brother that the Redemption from Egypt wasn’t complete. We’re still transitioning from slavery to freedom. That’s why we continue to eat the bread “our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.” My dad’s not inviting poor people. He’s talking about us at the Seder. We remain in spiritual poverty as long as the complete Redemption goes unrealized. That’s why he acknowledges that this year we are slaves while vowing that next year we will be free.

Richard: Then if you’re poor slaves at the Seder, why is your mother using the good china? Why aren’t you all dressed like hobos or members of the World Wrestling Federation?

Sadie: We act and feel like free people at the Seder because the Exodus from Egypt, even though it wasn’t the Final Redemption with Mashiach, was the opening and channel to the ultimate freedom.

Ethan: And how did you get into the head of your character there with your mom and dad, your brother with his runny nose, and all the matzah?

Sadie: I pictured myself as a member of a nation that embarked on a chartered flight this night many years ago, a flight that’s been en route for a long, long time. I saw the plane finally arriving tonight – all of us completing the journey together.

Richard: Sadie, that was wonderful. I think you’ve answered all our questions. Thank you for helping us out tonight. By the way, what’s your next movie going to be?

Sadie: I’m working on a project called The Haftorah Lesson. It’s a prequel to Bar Mitzvah.

Richard: Interesting. Well, good luck, Sadie!

Ethan: So, Richard, what’s the final verdict on Seder?

Richard: I want to like this movie, but something’s holding me back.

Ethan: What is it?

Richard: I hate to say it, but I think Mrs. Weiner overcooked the brisket.

Ethan: Ohhhh! But other than that?

Richard: Other than that I thought it was great.

Ethan: Fookiyama baffles you. But you know, if you’re patient and pay attention, sometimes he can make sense – and be beautiful. He can even be fun.

Richard: You know what they say: “Kawasaki lets the good times roll!”

Ethan: Rich, I realize you were waiting the whole show to say that. I just wish you’d waited a little longer.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Shtroodle


            I was waiting outside Einstein’s office, thinking about the code name for the secret project, “Red Penguin.” It didn’t exactly move me. Why didn’t they ask me about it? I wondered. I would have at least picked a kosher bird.
            The door opened and he greeted me with that quizzical look of his: John Einstein, top scientist of the Orthodox Union of Scientists, the OU-s.
            Einstein had invited me there to discuss Red Penguin, of which I knew nothing, to prepare me for tomorrow’s press briefing introducing the secret project.
            “Come with me to the library,” he said. “There’s a book I want to show you.”
Einstein led me to the stacks.
“This book,” he proclaimed, pulling an old, dusty tome from the shelf, “changed how we see the world. Isaac Newton’s Principia proved once and for all, through experimentation and rigorous mathematics, that nature operates, not by magic, but like a machine. At least that’s what most people thought. Newton, himself, never perceived nature as a machine.”
“Wait,” I said. “Isn’t this the guy who discovered gravity when he got beaned on the head with an apple?”
“And I suppose you also believe he invented the Fig Newton?” he asked.
“Well, yes,” I admitted.
“As I was saying,” Einstein continued, “Newton refused to view nature as an autonomous network of impulses and responses. He insisted that G-d operates the universe. He even wrote a friend that he hoped this book here, the Principia, would serve as a proof of G-d’s existence.
Newton wanted science to make G-d known, not conceal Him.”
            We then proceeded to a small laboratory tucked away in a corner of the building’s top floor. Einstein worked the lock on a safe at the far end of the lab. He produced a leather case and pulled out a laptop, which he placed on a nearby desk, facing me.
“You are about to experience the result of 23 years of work dedicated to proving the forgotten Newton right,” he declared. “G-d calls the shots. And science will show it.
“My invention detects the soul’s very will. It demonstrates that the spiritual world the soul inhabits exists.
 “I don’t know,” I protested. “This is starting to remind of the time you accidentally launched those lab mice in that propulsion experiment.”
“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “Look at the text box at the top of the page. Think of something you want. Now blink … Okay, here’s your search result in .00027 seconds: ‘See like this New Delhi rabbi! Laser eye surgery could be for you!  ... What was your wish?”
“An Indian restaurant under rabbinic supervision,” I said.
“We still have to work out a few kinks – it’s only a beta version,” Einstein insisted. “But once it’s ready, my new search engine will give the world its first glimpse of the spiritual world … I call it Shtroodle.”
“I think you better check with our lawyers about the name,” I said.
“Listen, there’s another reason why I’ve asked you here,” Einstein revealed, dropping his voice. “Ill-intentioned people want to thwart Shtroodle’s launch. I need your help.”
“Press release?” I said.
“No. A rogue group from the National Science Institute knows about Shtroodle,” he confided. “They’re trying to steal her and destroy the evidence that anything other than random chaos rules the universe.
“Someone posted a skull and crossbones on our Facebook page last week with the caption: ‘Red Penguin Is a Dead Duck’. And last night this building was broken into.”
“So, so what does this have to do with me?” I stammered.
“For security reasons I made no copies of Shtroodle,” he said. “This is the only version. I want you to take possession of Shtroodle and guard her. No one will suspect you. By accepting this responsibility you will be doing humanity a great kindness.”
“Don’t they have professionals for this kind of thing?” I protested. “Private security firms? Guys with unlisted phone numbers? I never hold on to anything! Give your magic search engine to me and it’s likely to end up with Al Qaeda!”
“We cannot trust Shtroodle to anyone on the outside,” Einstein insisted. “She is too sensitive!”
“Well, tell her to stop being so sensitive!” I shouted.
Einstein made a pouty face.
“Oh, all right. All right. I’ll do it for G-d and country … in that order.”
The next day I strode to the podium at the Union of Orthodox Scientists conference room to meet the press:
“I have a short statement and then I will take questions.
“This Monday at 8 pm at the Allegro ballroom of the Rodeway Inn, the OU-s will unveil Red Penguin, the top secret project in development for over 20 years. Red Penguin will prove once and for all that science and G-d are not incompatible – that science, in fact, points the way to G-d.
“This invention will fulfill the vision of Isaac Newton, who believed that science should show how G-d directly intervenes in and affects the world. I hope to see you all there ... OK, questions? Yes, you in the third row.”
“Isn’t Isaac Newton the guy who discovered gravity when an apple beaned him on the head?”
“That’s in all likelihood just a story. And I’ll save you another question: He didn’t discover the Fig Newton, either.
“Isaac Newton, the first physicist, was able to see G-d’s hand in the world with his science. The pertinent question is ‘Why didn’t anyone else see that?’ … Yes, the gentleman from the Ledger.”
“Why didn’t anyone else see that?”
“Good question. Newtonian physics made nature look like a machine, convincingly. Although Newton found Divinity there, most people couldn’t because physics was not advanced enough yet to explain the workings of the world as anything but machine-like … Myrna, go ahead.”
“Science has taken some pretty unpredictable turns since Newton’s time. Does it still describe a world without G-d?”
“In the 19th Century science began to change. Eventually, as scientists probed the properties of light and later looked inside the atom, a peculiar universe of strange behavior emerged. Scientists themselves began to speculate that the implications of the quantum world opened the door to the possibility of an intelligent being transcending the physical … Yes, Roy.”
Newton did more than leave the door open to G-d. He firmly believed that science and the belief in a Deity went hand in hand. Is anyone upholding that standard?”
“In the 1970s the Lubavitcher Rebbe announced that the time had come for science to fulfill its purpose, predicted by Kabbalah over 1,800 years ago: prepare the world for the Era of Mashiach. Then, according to the prophet Isaiah, everyone will see tangibly the Divinity that sustains the universe. Today’s science gives us a preview … Yes, in the front row, Ms. Skeptical.”
“That’s quite an assertion. Could you give us an example?”
“Einstein’s formula, E=mc2, states that mass and energy are interchangeable, aspects of the same thing. E=mc2 reduces the entire universe to these two equivalent states.
“The unity in the physical world demonstrated by Einstein is a reflection of the true existence of the world, G-d’s unity. Today science shows us unity in matter. In the future we will see with our eyes G-d’s essential oneness in the world … You in the third row.”
            “Can you confirm the rumors that a rogue group from the National Scientific Institute is trying to steal the OU-s’ much awaited secret project?”
            “No, I cannot. I think you’ve been reading too many spy novels … Next question. In the back.”
            “Why is that laptop case handcuffed to your left wrist?”
“What laptop? … Oh, this? My lunch is in here … peanut butter and jelly … and herring … sandwich. It’s my favorite. I don’t want it falling into the wrong hands … Good, there are no more questions … Have a nice day.”
I hurried out of the building, flagged a taxi and headed home.
That night I made dinner with the laptop still handcuffed to my left wrist. That didn’t present much of a problem, as I rarely use my left hand while cooking. But in my highly nervous – no, frightened – state I attempted to scratch my forehead with my left hand and banged myself on the nose.
            I decided to unlock the handcuff and place the laptop on the dinner table. As I reentered the kitchen, the computer began to beep. I had an email.
I opened the email and clicked on a smiley face. Nothing happened for a few seconds – then the computer started making loud noises, and the screen flashed on and off. Worried, I called Einstein.
“Did you open the email and select a smiley face icon?” he asked.
“Yes.”
“You just launched the Funny Virus,” he informed me.
“What’s the Funny Virus?” I asked.
“The Funny Virus takes control of your operating system, erases your hard drive and finally melts your hardware from the inside out,” he explained.
“What’s funny about that?” I asked.
“Nothing – except that it tells a joke before it destroys your computer,” he said.
Just then a commanding voice came through my speakers:
“Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?” I said.
“Bill and Melinda Gates,” the virus answered.
“Bill and Melinda Gates who?” I responded.
“You know, Bill Gates and Melinda Gates. Bill is the guy who founded Microsoft, and he and his wife Melinda now head an international foundation that gives billions of dollars a year for global health and development …”
“What happened?” Einstein interjected.
“The virus told a joke,” I said.
“Now what’s happening?” he asked.
“The computer hardware is melting from the inside out,” I reported.
“Yep,” Einstein said. “It’s the Funny Virus.”
“But that wasn’t even a real joke!” I protested.
“I guess you were right, then,” he admitted. “It’s not that funny, after all.”
After Shtroodle was torpedoed, the haranguing from the group of rogue NSI scientists stopped. I began exploring other ways to elevate awareness that science reveals G-dliness in the world. In my trolling of the Internet I came across an interesting scientific phenomenon, quantum entanglement. In the quantum universe when two particles interact and then become separated – even at opposite ends of the world – a change in one automatically yields the same change in the other.
I wrote a memo outlining how the OU-s could explore this area as a possible demonstration of G-dly unity and was directed to one of our scientists, Jerry Oppenheimer, who did work on the phenomenon.
Jerry was interested in my proposal, and we decided to begin collaborating. While we were talking I noticed he would occasionally drum his fingers on the lid of a green Tupperware container on his desk. As I was about to leave, I asked him what was in the container. He said with a smile it was his wife’s shtrudel and offered me a sample. I respectfully declined.